Mikveh in the Time of Corona: Reflections on immersion and alternatives

Accessibility and Inclusion, National Network, Niddah

by Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David
Originally published on the Times of Israel blog

To immerse or not to immerse? That is the question. And if not to immerse, or if immersing becomes impossible, can (and should) we who have made mikveh our rabbinic pulpit offer an alternative in these times?

Shmaya: A Mikveh For Mind, Body and Soul on Kibbutz Hannaton is unique on the Israel scene in its mission to serve everyone who wants to immerse and to let them do so in the manner in which they choose. We have no restrictions on who can use our mikveh or when (all human beings are welcome 24/7), except that they must make an appointment ahead of time to avoid uncomfortable overlap. The idea of having to ask people to think twice about coming to immerse, or to consider prioritizing some people’s immersions over others is contrary to our mission.

At Shmaya we also have no “balanit,” or mikveh attendant, checking people at the door or before they immerse. We offer the option of accompaniment, even pre-immersion spiritual accompaniment and help preparing a personalized ceremony, but for those who prefer to immerse alone or with the accompaniment of another person (or other persons) of their choice, we leave the key outside for them to come and go on their own. In times like these, this means trusting people that they are not feeling ill or that they are not meant to be in isolation. The thought of having to check people’s temperature before they immerse would feel like an invasion of the mutual trust – not to mention an invasion of our clients’ privacy – that we consider so sacred.

Like most other mikva’ot in Israel and around the world, Shmaya remains open, at least for now – despite the fact that all other public buildings on the kibbutz are closed – but with certain serious restrictions. All rooms except the immersion room are closed off, those who come to immerse must wear gloves and some kind of shoe from the time they approach the building up until going into the water , and upon leaving the water, the person immersing must immediately put back on the gloves and shoes and clean with alcohol-wipes everything they touched around the immersion pool when the gloves were off (hand rail, mikveh walls, blessing cards, etc.). This is in addition to our regular cleaning.

COVID-19 is killed by chlorine, and since health codes already require that mikveh water be chlorinated, the idea is that immersing in a public mikveh does not pose a danger of passing the virus from person to person. Since the act of full body immersion in water is the central part of the mikveh experience and is in and of itself not problematic, our desire – and that of those who run mikva’ot in general – is to allow the immersion act to continue for as long as possible while closing off all other parts of this public building where the virus could be spread through touching surfaces.

As someone who has done much research, writing, and teaching on mikveh (including a doctoral dissertation), the notion that the virus cannot be transmitted through most forms of mikveh immersion delights me. There are many levels on which one can understand the practice of full body immersion in water, and one of those is about the renewing characteristics of water and how a mikveh cannot contract tumah (which is associated with death and illness).

Water, which is timeless and endless, constantly renews itself, and therefore is beyond mortality. It is also called “living water” as it makes up most of our body and the planet earth. It is a life force and a life-sustainer. The same waters that existed before Creation exist now and will exist after COVID and after whatever else we humans can imagine will befall this earth. We need water to survive, but it does not need us.

Of course, uncertainty around whether unchlorinated water would transmit the disease brings my delight down a few notches. As does the fact that the act of mikveh immersion must now be surrounded by these sterilizing precautions that could cause anxiety and prevent the kind of surrender and freedom of letting go into the water that is for some an essential part of their immersion experience.

But what I mourn most perhaps is the ghost town feel of the mikveh now. I personally cannot leave the house, as I am in a high risk category, but I have seen photos of the interior doors covered with red tape; and since all mikveh traffic goes through me, I am aware of the drop in the number of immersions, which the kibbutz has now limited to only Hannaton residents.

A large part of our business is groups and individuals from around Israel and the world who come to Shmaya to learn about and experience mikveh or perform a wide range of life-transition and spiritual-centering immersion ceremonies. Shmaya usually hosts pre-wedding immersion gatherings, conversions not done through the Israeli Rabbinate, and a variety of blessings circles. Sadly, the gathering room is now blocked-off and the chairs, which are usually arranged in a circle, are stacked and pushed aside.

There is also a good chance we will not be able to continue even the limited service we are currently providing if restrictions get stricter (as I wrote this piece, I received a notice that Mayyim Hayyim in the Boston area has decided to close down for now) or if the virus starts spreading in Hannaton and we decide to be stricter than the Ministry of Health is requiring. I would feel horrible if the mikveh augmented the spread of COVID-19 on my home turf, even if technically we were not breaking any health codes when it happened.

Even deciding to keep the mikveh open in the limited capacity it is now working was a difficult decision. But since the handful of Hannaton residents who have chosen to continue immersing at this time (the vast majority have decided it is just too risky) would go to a nearby large town to immerse if we do not continue to offer them that option here on the kibbutz, we decided it was safer to let them immerse here rather than risk contracting the virus there and bringing it back to Hannaton. Moreover, because of our pluralistic approach, we would like to honor everyone’s personal choice, as long as it is within what is considered safe by the health authorities. After all, people who do not think those standards are high enough will not come to immerse anyway.

On the chance we have to put red tape even on our front door and remove the key from its accessible spot, and for those who even now cannot leave the house to immerse because they are in a high risk category, or even for those who (understandably) do not feel comfortable immersing in a public space out of fear of contracting the virus even if the Health Ministry is still allowing mikvaot to remain open, I feel compelled at this time to come up with an alternative to institutional mikveh immersion. I have already received phone calls and emails from people who cannot (or choose not to) immerse now and are in a dilemma as to what to do. There is no one answer that suits everyone. But following are some thoughts and options:

Unfortunately, immersing in natural mikva’ot is not currently possible for many. In Israel, Public beaches are off-limits to the population (which means immersing without a lifeguard and violating the law if one immerses in the ocean) and going 100 meters from one’s house is also forbidden at the risk of receiving a 500 NIS fine. Immersing in a natural spring is not recommended by epidemiologists, as they fear the virus could be passed through fresh water, especially in a contained area and if people are immersing at the same time or within short periods of time one from the next.

So what are the options?

There is a halakhic opinion that in places where there is no other option, a public swimming pool could serve as a mikveh, but even those are closed now. So it seems that a bathtub – or shower if one, like me, does not have a bathtub – is our only option for something that resembles mikveh immersion. This is not so far-fetched, since the original verses in Leviticus that describe how to exit a state of tumah speak of washing not immersing. (Although, admittedly, this was in a time when bathing was not as common and accessible as it is today.)

Mikveh is not spelled out in the Bible explicitly in the form it is practiced today, but there are hints of our current practice, and its spirit is clearly found in verses of Leviticus (the Purity laws) and Genesis (the Creations story). Moreover, we have archeological evidence of ancient mikvaot going back to the early Second Temple period. Mikveh is an ancient Jewish practice that has been part of Jewish life for over two thousand years.

Mikveh is also a uniquely embodied ritual so universal in its experiential nature; it is connected to the elements of water and earth, flow and grounded-ness. It is about rebirth, renewal, spiritual centering and tapping into eternity. It would be such a shame to lose this ritual. Yet, one should also not make an idol of it.

Requiring the ritual be practiced according to the exact specifications of the Rabbis even in these extraordinarily urgent times when lives can be saved by being flexible, would surely be making an idol of the practice itself, which is not only a Torah violation, but is one of the Ten Commandments.

The purpose of religious ritual is not an end but rather a means to creating divine connection in one’s life to prepare us for times like this, when we need all of the spiritual support and centeredness we can muster. In some such circumstances, holding onto tradition can be a comfort. But not for everyone. And not when it endangers lives.

So, when mikvaot are closing down or not accessible to all, when natural mikvaot are not an option, and when immersing in public spaces poses a health danger or risk, we can choose to let go of mikveh, or we can choose to create an alternative ritual to stand in for mikveh in these extreme circumstances. The question is, which is the better route on an individual and communal/collective level?

There are halakhic authorities who in the past have allowed immersing in a river – even though a river is not considered undoubtedly “kosher” according to most halakhic scholars – in places where there is no other option. In addition, when one cannot put one’s head under water for medical or psychological reasons, one is permitted to pour water over one’s head while in the mikveh (a halakhic ruling that comes in handy for me sometimes when a client cannot put their head underwater for medical or psychological reasons).

Neither of these cases are directly parallel to our situation today, however, where for some there is no option to immerse in a river or a mikveh (and pour water over one’s head), and where for all this may be the reality at some point. But these halakhic opinions do show that there is room for flexibility in situations where there is medical danger or a physical impossibility preventing immersing in a halakhic mikveh. This is important to note and to recognize because that gives us flexibility in the case of COVID-19, which contains both of these problems.

Some problems with using a bathtub or shower from a halakhic point of view are that there is no direct rain water in a bathtub or shower at all (most institutional mikvaot are part direct-rain water and part water delivered through plumbing), a bathtub usually cannot hold enough water to be a halakhic mikveh, and one cannot immerse in a shower.

But if we consider this the only option, the question is: can this be an adequate temporary substitute (bearing in mind that it is not halakhic under normal circumstances), and if so, what are some possible drawbacks? One problem with immersing in one’s bathtub or taking an especially luxurious shower, is that a ritual should feel sacred. If one takes a bath or showers regularly not as mikveh, what could make it feel sacred and different when it is mikveh immersion?

First, how often does one put one’s head underwater while taking a bath? The mere act of doing a full body immersion in one’s bathtub would make it feel different. As for the shower, one could figure out how long it would take to use 40 Kabim, about 11.25 gallons, of water, and concentrate on having the water flow over one’s entire body at once with kavanah (sacred intention) towards mikveh.

In fact, if your water system comes from a source that is a kosher natural mikveh, that would make your shower or bath an extension in some ways of that mikveh – which is actually the halakhic status of most institutional mikvaot anyway, since they are made up partially of tap water and are treated with chlorine but “kiss” a rainwater cistern, which is what makes them halachically acceptable.

Second, if one creates a more sacred atmosphere by, for instance, turning out the lights and lighting candles around the bathroom, that could certainly create the right effect.

The question remains: Is the bath/shower option better than nothing? Well, that depends on the purpose one chooses to immerse.

For those to whom mikveh is not a ritual “obligation,” but rather a spiritual luxury, this alternative may be an easy even if not ideal solution. But if the reason is to fulfill a religious obligation that will allow you to have sex after uterine bleeding, without a substitute for mikveh sexual intercourse (and according to strict adherence to this practice, sexual intimacy of any sort) is still off limits.

Doing without sex is not the end of the world. One could argue that preserving the integrity of halakhah and rabbinic authority, and the sacredness and necessity of authentic mikveh immersion, trumps sex. Even if sex in marriage and procreation are religious obligations, that is not necessarily at all costs and in all situations. Moreover, a couple in the long run might feel better having sacrificed and persevered rather than not having lived up to their religious commitment. And some couples may even be too stressed-out now – especially those who have small kids at home 24/7 and are working from home – to relax enough to have sex anyway under these circumstances.

But there are couples who are very much in the mood right now and for whom sex would help release their tension, but who have no mikveh access and would very much appreciate an alternative to mikveh to put them at ease knowing that there is a good chance they will violate the no-sex restriction anyway even if they cannot find a solution. There are even couples who are already counting a bath or shower as mikveh – and reciting the blessing upon mikveh immersion – in lieu of another option. For these couples, having public acknowledgment that the bathtub or shower can be an adequate option could relieve feelings of shame and guilt in already stressful times.

We are all being asked to do our best to stay healthy, which includes mental and emotional health, not only physical health. And our best is all we can do.

In cases like these, it would be advisable for the partner/s of the couple with an immersion practice around their sexual relationship to keep in mind when bathing and/or showering that if the couple should slip and have sex, there is halakhic backing that would render a bath or shower retroactively “good enough” in this case of “sha’at had’chak” (urgency). Especially since the reason for not being able to immerse in a proper halakhic mikveh is “pikuach nefesh”, i.e. in order to save a life (or in this case, even many lives).

Therefore, when showering, it would make sense to take a longer shower, and when bathing to do a full-body immersion for a few moments, so that if the couple should fall short of their ideal, they would feel less badly about it.

They may even choose to recite the proper blessing upon immersion, although this depends on their level of stringency around the halakhot of reciting blessings with God’s name. There are substitute blessings they could recite, however, such as a blessing upon “immersing in living waters” without God’s name. Or even the “shehecheyanu” blessing upon new things and experiences. It may seem counterintuitive to bless reaching a moment like this, but in these times, every day – even if challenging and often seemingly unbearable – we are alive is truly a blessing.

Moreover, there are couples who are less stringent about halakhah and feel the shower or bath option will be a good enough alternative for them now to resume sex. These couples should feel fine about intentionally substituting the shower or bath option for now in this time of urgency and risk to their own and public health. For these couples, creating a sacred and ritualistic atmosphere and reciting a blessing would certainly enhance the experience and help emphasize the purpose of this ritual, which is to mark and express the holiness of their sexual relationship.

There are risks, however, to presenting this alternative. Whether the concern is about preserving the halakhic system and rabbinic authority, preserving tradition, or even preserving institutional mikva’ot that are the result of investment of much time and effort, a serious question remains – is it too risky to create an alternative to mikveh? Will couples continue bathing or showering instead of proper mikveh immersion even once that becomes a safe option again?

Some might, but the vast majority would not, as the same thing that motivated them to keep this practice in the first place – i.e. commitment to a halakhic system and community, or the pure love of full body immersion outside of their own homes – would push them to return to traditional mikveh immersion when (and if) this is all over.

A bath or shower “mikveh” practice might not have the same force as full body immersion in an actual mikveh (natural or human-made), but it would for some be better than nothing. And there are times when better than nothing just has to do.

Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is a rabbi and writer. She is the rabbinic founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, the only mikveh in Israel open to all to immerse as they choose. She is the author of two spiritual journey memoirs: Chanah’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, and Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, which was a runner up for the National Jewish Book Council Awards. Ordained as both a rabbi and an inter-faith minister, certified as a spiritual counselor (with a specialty in dream work), and with a doctorate on mikveh from Bar Ilan University, she offers mikveh guidance and spiritual counseling for individuals and couples, and mikveh workshops and talks for groups. She is currently working on a novel and a third spiritual memoir, and her latest book, Getting (and Staying) Married Jewishly: Preparing for your Life Together with Ancient and Modern Wisdom, is slated for publication in 2020. She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children.


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